What a difference a year can make in football. From the shambles of last year’s Premiership play-offs, to being 90 minutes away from a return to European football, Mark Warburton has been a revelation in Scottish football.
Twenty-four hours away from the Scottish Cup final, it’s difficult not to look back and be stunned at the progress made in little under a year. The appointment of Warburton, alongside assistant and former Rangers captain David Weir, has proven to be a fantastic decision by those currently in residence in the Ibrox boardroom.
The addition of head of recruitment Frank McParland looks to be another shrewd move with McParland believed to have had a lot of influence when it came to the pre-contract signing of highly-rated Liverpool kid Jordan Rossiter.
Warburton has also introduced a style of football not seen at Ibrox since the first-half of Dick Advocaat’s spell in charge and it has sent fans home with a renewed sense of belief that Rangers are capable of challenging for the title next season. That style of play has seen Rangers’ romp to the Championship title well ahead of Falkirk and Hibernian, and has seen Warburton attract attention from other clubs looking for a manager.
The insistence that Rangers play a particular way drew some criticism earlier in the season, but now as Warburton sits on the brink of an unprecedented trio of trophies, it’s difficult to argue that it has paid off.
In the transfer market, almost every signing has been a success with only Maciej Gostomski being an out-and-out flop. Gedion Zelalem and Nathan Oduwa have both been criticised, however both played a role in this season’s successes and, while neither saw the same kind of success as Jason Holt, both players look to have all the tools needed to have successful careers.
Harry Forrester started slowly before hitting a fantastic vein of goalscoring form which was curtailed by a season ending injury. Wes Foderingham, Rob Kiernan, Danny Wilson, Andy Halliday, James Tavernier and Martyn Waghorn all started almost every week and all had great seasons.
Jason Holt has been an absolute steal and, for me, was the best player in the side all season. With Josh Windass, Matt Crooks and Rossiter all confirmed signings and Joey Barton, at the time of writing, looking like being a Rangers player imminently, it’s shaping up for a good second season for the former Brentford boss.
But first there’s the small matter of a Scottish Cup final.
Hibs didn’t live up to anyone’s expectations this season; least of all Alan Stubbs’, but they will still be difficult opponents at the National Stadium. Jason Cummings has a habit of scoring against Rangers and will be hoping to end Hibs’ long-running cup hoodoo. After their play-off defeat to Falkirk, they’ll have something to prove and will look to surprise a few people.
Foderingham will start behind the usual back four of Tavernier, Kiernan, Wilson and Lee Wallace. Wallace and Tavernier have regularly stepped up at big moments for Rangers this season and the captain will be hoping to do it in his Scottish Cup final as a Rangers player.
Dominic Ball will be a big miss as the on-loan Spurs defender offers more protection in the defensive midfield position, or the number six role for those who now prefer using a numbered based system since Warburton does it, although Halliday has performed well there throughout the season. Holt and Dean Shiels will likely take up the two midfield berths ahead of him.
Forward Waghorn is fit for the showpiece game and will take his place leading the Rangers line with Barrie McKay and Kenny Miller. Waghorn will be hoping to make it over the 30-goal mark for the season, while Miller could be making his final appearance at Hampden.
Rangers should win and lift the Scottish Cup for the first time since beating Falkirk for it back in 2009, and if they do, will become the first team from outside the top division of Scottish football to lift the national cup since East Fife in 1938.
If Rangers play as they do, and given recent visits to Hampden, they seem to relish the big occasion there, then they should see off Hibs and secure a return to continental football.
Can we bring back #ThisIsFun yet?